March 22, 2019
CHRIS MCKEEN/STUFF | Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speaks after the first Friday prayers in Christchurch following the March 15 terror attack.
By Philip Matthews | Stuff News NZ
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was in a small room at Christchurch Airport, eating a plate of fruit with a plastic fork and waiting for a flight. She was dressed from head to toe in black and she looked tired.
She had been to the hospital for the third time in a week and met with survivors of the mosque shootings. Then she went to Hagley Park and stood in the calm crowd of 20,000 people as prayers were held and the entire country stopped for two minutes of silence. The mood was sombre but she was struck as well by the words of Imam Gamal Fouda – he was so resolute, she thought. She admired that resolve.
Two days before, a student at Cashmere High School had asked Ardern how she felt. Ardern replied simply that she was sad. Along with her decisiveness about gun laws and her inclusive style of grieving, that was another of the honest moments in a week that saw Ardern’s style of leadership praised by everyone from the New York Times and the Financial Times to a 13-year-old Muslim girl in Sydney who wrote her a letter.
“I don’t think I’m displaying leadership,” Ardern replied. “I just think I’m displaying humanity.”
She thought about how this week will change us, individually and collectively.
“Even off the back of today, you’ve had thousands of people exposed to a faith they may not have been exposed to. It’s really a bringing together of communities. In that regard, I think we are all forever changed. In many ways, but particularly that.”
We can also change the language we use and the attitudes we display – in politics, in media, in other spheres of life.
“In politics we can choose to model behaviour. That’s part of the reason I was very deliberate in choosing to not name the terrorist, and to call it terrorism. But ultimately it will be up to every individual, media outlet and politician to take responsibility for our positions and language.
“I genuinely believe that all I am modelling are the values of New Zealanders. On every occasion when I’ve had an opportunity to share words, all I’ve reflected in my mind is ‘what are New Zealanders feeling right now? What are the words I’m hearing expressed around me? How do we all feel?'”
She was confident she reflected the values of the majority, and the public response would confirm she was right, but while “this attack was brought to us by someone who was not a citizen”, we cannot hide from the fact that the ideology also existed here.
“One of the things we can all do is never allow New Zealand to be an environment where any of that hostility can survive. [But] terrorism doesn’t have borders, we’ve seen that now. So we can do our bit in New Zealand but actually we need to try and play a leadership role too.”
Gun law reform has been one way to show leadership to the world. That response was “completely obvious”. Tackling social media is another and those companies “know there will be a call for change”.
Something else made her sad this week, she admitted, and it was the “beautiful letter” from the Australian teenager. She would like to write back – not in an open letter, just privately.
Reporters do not usually ask if prime ministers feel sad. Nor do they ask if they are religious. But this has not been a typical week.
“I consider myself to be agnostic,” Ardern replied, “but given I was raised in a religious household, I like to think I’m very open-minded to everyone’s choices and faiths and their ways of life.”
The religion question nudged at an even greater one, about how people find a way through dark experiences like this.
“I think if you still have an absolute faith in humanity, and I still have that.”